Jack and the Rotarians

Jack and the Rotarians were no longer speaking. They all sat in the Masonic hall and ate their chicken and baked potatoes grimly, sawing at the dry flesh out of habit even though they weren't hungry. No one had ever invited a Mexican before.

The Mexican was a doctor and he wasn't actually from Mexico. He came from Los Angeles and he was my father, which is why I'm telling this story.

This story is actually the convergence of two events on one day. Nobody talks about coincidence in Salinas. Nobody runs into anybody and thinks, "What a small world." This is only to say that because it was a small town, of course I knew Jack's son.

Jack Jr. and I ran the mile and two mile for the middle-school track team. Jack Sr. coached the long-distance runners and that night, that same Wednesday, the Wednesday that my father attended the Rotary meeting for the first time and the Wednesday of the track meet, Jack Jr. and I kissed.

Kissing is often the point of the story but in this story it isn't. It is the thing that happened that day, but it isn't the point--the kissing was incidental, only one event. There is a Latin term for the assumption that the first action causes the next, just because the two events follow sequentially. My dad said the phrase all the time as a warning against such thinking, post hoc ergo propter hoc, after this means because of this. But he meant the opposite. We were supposed to remember it was a fallacy.

At the track meet that afternoon, it was hard for us seventh graders to know what exactly had happened at the lunch meeting and why it mattered. After the dads dropped their kids off, they stood around together, kicking at the grass with their hands in their pockets. We all overheard them talking, "Next thing you know, it'll be all greasers at the meeting." Or, "It had to happen sometime," and, "His son is on the track team, you know."

None of the fathers spoke to Jack Sr.

Jack Sr. didn't care. As a pre-meet warm-up he practiced his favorite activity. While we ran warm-up laps, he ran around the track ahead of us, juggling three tennis balls. He called this joggling.

"Come on you slugs, I could run faster than you even if these tennis balls were axes."

His antics didn't help me. Everybody knew that I was the child of the Mexican who'd gone to the Rotary Club meeting. My teammates looked at me with a kind of awe. I'd never been Mexican before and now I was.

I lived in a house with a pool and my family took trips. I had one sister. My mother didn't push the shopping cart back from the grocery store with all of her children trailing behind. I'd always been brown, but now I was a Mexican.

Nobody said anything to me that day. Maybe they were afraid that I'd stop being a Mexican and that they would look foolish for thinking I was something I wasn't.

Jack Jr. was thin and tall. He had blond hair and very pale skin. He was built like a long-distance runner. He would have been considered good looking, but he often had a worried look on his face. When it was time to pick on the fat kid, or the nerd, he just watched. He didn't defend anybody but he didn't say anything mean either.

This is the same day, the same story. This isn't the day, two weeks in the future when, at the next meet, Jack Jr. elbowed me in the ribs to get around me on his final kick to the finish line, even though we were on the same team. He threw his bony arm into my side, leaving a bruise, and he didn't apologize afterward.

This isn't the time years later, in high school, that we sat on the bus with our bare legs touching on the way back from Monterey, our heads hunched close to the portable video football game.

This is still the Wednesday of that first Rotary meeting my dad attended with Jack Jr.'s dad.

We wore our singlets and the silky shorts that grazed the tops of our thighs, sweat pants and sweat shirts over the racing wear. We ran in our regular running shoes. Our racing flats, tied together around our necks, bounced on our chests. As a team, we long-distance runners ran wide laps around the playing field, jogging slowly to warm up.

I ran just ahead of Jack Jr.

"Hey," Jack Jr. said, covering his mouth so that his father wouldn't see.

"What?"

"Let's not race today. Let's ditch."

"Okay," I said. I didn't know what we would do or where we would go but it seemed that Jack Jr. had a plan. I didn't think past the moment of escape because it was the escape itself that was thrilling. It was dangerous--I knew we'd be caught--but I liked the idea of hiding. The danger wasn't the attraction, the hiding was. Of course one thing causes another.

We waited until nobody, no adult, was looking. Then we told Jake McInnis and Jeff Wong that we were going to the bathroom. After we made it around the corner, we kept jogging to the bike rack. We unlocked our bikes then climbed on. We pedaled fast.

We rode to Jack Jr.'s grandparent's house. Jack Jr. fished the key out from the birdhouse hanging under the eaves of the front porch. The older Churches had gone down to Cabo San Lucas and we had the house to ourselves.

Jack Jr. showed me a refrigerator in the garage full of Miller Lite. We cracked open beers and sat in lounge chairs on the back deck. The beer tasted like aluminum and it was very cold.

"This beats running around that damn track."

"Yeah. Damn racing."

"Do you want a cigarette?" Jack Jr. motioned me over to his deck chair. He had a pack in the pocket of his sweatpants, as if he smoked all the time. He lit the cigarette with a lighter and blew out the smoke. He waved the pack at me. I took one of the cigarettes and put it in my mouth. He waved the flame of the lighter in front of my cigarette.

"Inhale like your mother just came into the room."

I tried it, gasping in the smoke.

I coughed violently. His trick worked.

"Have you ever kissed a girl?" Jack Jr. asked.

"No, have you?" My eyes watered from the smoke but I kept at it.

"What do you think it's like?"

We got another couple of beers from the garage then sat down next to each other on the same deck chair.

We'd already left the meet, we'd be kicked off the team, and probably suspended too. In the future we wouldn't even live in the same town. I would want to kiss boys and Jack Jr. wouldn't, but that night, that Wednesday, it didn't matter. We were going to do everything bad all at once.

Jack took a film canister out of his backpack and showed me the marijuana inside. He took out rolling papers and tried to look like he knew what he was doing. His hands shook and the paper made a noise like a leaf. He said curse words under his breath.

When he was done, the joint looked wrong. I didn't know exactly what it should have looked like, but I knew it was too fat on one end and it was kind of loose, so the marijuana dribbled out unless Jack tilted it at a crazy angle. Jack lit it and inhaled. It worked even though it was messy.

I inhaled too. We relaxed against the back of the chair.

"Running sucks," I said. I didn't mean it. I liked running, I just didn't like to race.

"Yeah," Jack said. He put his arms over his head. We sat very close together on the deck chair.

Jack leaned over and kissed me, slipping his tongue in my mouth for a second.

I was horrified and I wanted more. I pulled my mouth away.

"It's probably better with a girl," Jack Jr. said.

That was it.

"Let's have another cigarette," I said. I liked how smoking gave me something to do with my hands.

We shared another cigarette. Neither one of us smoked properly. I felt so happy to be smoking badly next to Jack Jr. We weren't even friends.

We drank another beer each and talked about Dungeons and Dragons. We never knew the other also liked to play. We made a plan to play and smoke a joint before we played. I decided I was a stoner. I'd heard of people getting hooked right off, and I guessed I was one of them.

I'd never had a whole beer to myself before, let alone two. I felt tired and I wanted to close my eyes, so I let them shut. Jack Jr. must have passed out soon after I did.

My father and Jack Sr. found us lying on the one chair. We were so small that we fit, snuggled next to each other like children.

"Let's talk mi hijo," my father said, in the car on the way home.

The Miller Lite addled my brain and I thought I might be sick on the floor. Mostly I still felt very tired. I closed my eyes, leaning my head against the glass of the car door.

"I won't do it again," I said. I didn't specify what I meant.

"I know you won't. You are an ethical person."

I pressed more of my face on the cool glass, wishing my dad would stop talking.

"When I was little I used to be able to fly. I flew around the backyard when nobody was there. But then I got scared that somebody would see me, so I stopped."

"That's not true," I said. The story was meant to make me laugh, but it didn't work. It worried me that it might be true. Even then I knew that he was talking about something sexual because the flying was shameful. Something shameful is probably true and this is what worried me. I didn't want my dad to fly.

Later, I pieced together a more complete picture of that day. Jack Sr. had started up a campaign to get my father into the Rotary Club. Step one was to get him to the meeting. He pursued my father like a lover. He called my father every day, "Why don't you want to come to the meeting? It won't hurt you. It'll be good for the community. If you come, I'll teach you how to juggle."

Years before the meeting, Jack Sr. had gone away to college, then came back to this small farming town to go into his father's line of business, insurance. He sold insurance to farmers and lawyers and doctors and made plenty of money at it. The Churches were an old family, old for California, and people trusted them. The Churches might be wild as youngsters--get drunk and flip a car or grow long hair--then they always settled into the family business.

But something happened to Jack Sr. at college. Lots of people pick up a veneer of liberalism, but most of us are lazy. We aren't willing to make our vision real. Jack Sr. saw how the town he came from functioned, and decided to do something about it. He came back to the town with plans. My father was one of Jack Sr.'s projects.

After months of phone calls, my father gave in.

"I'll go to the meeting."

At the meeting that Wednesday, Jack introduced my father around. During the luncheon, the man sitting next to my father, one of the bank vice presidents, leaned over and said, "You speak English good for a Mexican."

My father said, "Thank you. You speak well yourself."

The man looked pleased, but unsure whether or not he'd been insulted. It didn't matter. An insult from a Mexican only meant the Mexican was looking for trouble.

Jack Sr. and my father became friends. The racist old bastards either died or gave up, and Jack stuck around, my father stuck around.

My dad joined Rotary and attended meetings every week, no matter where he was, even when vacationing in Thailand or in Sun Valley for the the annual cardiologists convention. When he was in town, my dad sat next to Jack. Those two never stopped planning or making things happen in the town.

At the last Rotary meeting, the last Wednesday of this story, my father urged Jack to eat the cherry pie served to him even though it wasn't very good.

"You only live once. Waste not want not." And my dad meant both things. He actually knew about wanting.

My father was too intelligent--he was a doctor, after all--to blame himself when the next day Jack clutched his chest and fell to the floor, dead.

Jack was still young. The Churches didn't die young. Everybody came to the funeral.

Even I came. I took an airplane and rented a car and I came home.

At the reception, I saw Jack Jr. standing in a line with the rest of his family, shaking hands. We'd lost touch. He looked like his father. He had the same energy around him, like a suit. Jack Jr. was a little thicker in the middle but still tall, of course, and he was deeply tanned, crows feet around his eyes.

My father whispered to me that Jack Jr. was a doctor now too. He had a wife and a baby girl. He had a clinic and didn't charge people who couldn't pay. My father had told me this before, but I let him tell me again.

Jack Jr. smiled when he saw me. He broke out of the receiving line, "I'm glad you came." He put out his arms to be hugged.

"Your father was a good man. He'll be missed." I said. I felt Jack Jr. shaking like he was crying. He wasn't. He couldn't stop laughing. Maybe we both remembered the same things. Jack laughed so much, tears ran down his face.

"I know," he said. "I loved him so much." We clutched each other like men.